“When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.” – Dr. Brené Brown (Professor, author, and podcast host)
Last year was a year of great turbulence for me, as a mother I had to master the art of letting go of my tiny dependent toddler into the big bad world. She was going to start school and I was petrified by the prospect of her being away from me for four long hours. I imagined her to be anxious, scared, and unsure of dealing with things on her own. I remember asking her teacher, worried in the first parent-teacher meeting, “Is my daughter able to make friends? Does she seem comfortable? Is she able to adjust to the school environment? She hardly shares anything.” The teacher asked me to just pause and observe her. To my utter astonishment, I saw my apparently shy daughter make her way through the pre-primary classrooms with elan, she trotted along the corridors, paused where her artwork was displayed, played a little at the sand pit and came back with a coconut shell in which she had planted a small sapling. I realized at that moment that she completely belonged there; that I was more alien to that place than her and that most of my worries were unfounded. And since then, I have just seen her grow and flourish.
This positive experience made me think more deeply about the concept of belonging.
What is it to belong? Why is it important to belong? How can children own up the spaces where they spend most of their days? What would make a child flourish and feel at home even when away from home?
Schools are important places to make a child feel safe, secure, understood, and supported. The sense of belonging is seen as a fundamental human need where an individual feels a deep connection with others, with physical spaces, and individual and collective experiences. This feeling in turn impacts various physical, social, psychological, and economic outcomes for the individual (Allen, et. al., 2022).
Though belongingness is a basic need, not many students experience that feeling in school and their experience is marred by a feeling of disconnection, lack of attachment and non-acceptance. A review by Kelly-Ann Allen (2021) highlights how the lack of belongingness can lead to absenteeism, low confidence, high attrition, and risk for school-based violence in students. Students who experience a low sense of belonging are also more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and suicide.
The students who are on the margins, more vulnerable due to their socio-economic backgrounds and minority status, can also struggle with their academic performance due to this. Not only does the child’s academic performance get affected but several studies also highlight the importance of school belongingness in enhancing a child’s mental well-being and contributing to the child’s sense of identity (Allen, et al., 2021).
The human brain and immune system, according to various research, are hardwired to keep the body and mind safe and encourage people to seek out social safety and connection and avoid threats. A sense of belonging has been seen as equally important to food, shelter, and physical safety for promoting well-being and resilience in the long run (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Maslow, 1954).
One of the most widely used definitions of school belonging was offered by Goodenow and Grady (1993) where they defined it as ‘the extent to which children feel individually welcomed, respected, included, and supported by others within the school social environment’.
An environment where students feel accepted can especially help them through difficult developmental stages of identity formation, learning important psychosocial skills, managing peer influence, and forming fulfilling relationships. A well-adjusted student will also carry these skills further in their adulthood and thrive in difficult circumstances.
Research studies highlight how belongingness in school contributes significantly to emotional, physical, and psychological well-being and enhances academic performance. The sense of belonging is also an important contributing factor towards a sense of self-efficacy, self-concept, sociability, and optimism. The effect of a sense of belonging in schools is inversely related to oppositional behaviour, aggression, bullying, distress, and risk taking behaviour like substance use and early sexualisation (Allen et al., 2018).
A sense of belonging in school has been found to be especially important for the developmental stage of adolescents, as this is usually a turbulent stage, marked by significant hormonal, physical, and psychological changes. Adolescence with its unique needs and challenges like identity formation, peer influence, increasing need for social acceptance and relationships becomes an important stage to navigate the transition to adulthood. School belonging contributes to positive self-identity and facilitates this transition. Negative experience especially during this time can lead to maladjustment and heightened distress (Allen et al., 2018).
Various factors contributing to students’ sense of belonging in schools
There are numerous factors according to meta-analytical studies (Allen et al., 2018) that influence a student’s sense of belonging in school. However, it’s important to remember that the causal direction of these factors remain unclear. A summary of findings from a study by Allen et al., (2018) suggests that the following factors are linked to school belonging and hence are important to keep in mind while thinking about strategies to enhance a sense of school belonging.
- Academic motivation: There’s a circular relationship between academic motivation and sense of belonging. Positive academic motivation can lead to a student performing better, seeing it as a rewarding experience and appreciating the importance of learning in all aspects of life – school, work, and community. An enhanced sense of belonging in the community will in turn make the student feel more motivated and willing to work towards academic goals.
- Emotional stability: The study by Allen et al. has also indicated that individuals who are more in tune with their emotions and are able to regulate them, feel a better sense of connection with the people and community around them. Knowing how to cater to one’s own emotional needs is an important factor to foster a sense of connection with others.
- Personal characteristics: The same study has also highlighted how individual factors like high self-efficacy beliefs, conscientiousness, effective coping skills, positive emotions, hope, sociability, positive relations with others, support a sense of school belonging. On the other hand, mental health related factors like heightened anxiety, depressions, suicidal thoughts contribute to a low sense of belonging. Certain demographic features like gender, race, and ethnicity seem to also contribute to the sense of school belonging.
- Parent/peer/teacher support: Various micro level factors contribute to the sense of belonging in schools like support from teachers (mutual respect, care, encouragement, fairness, and autonomy), quality friendships, productive engagement in academics, social support from peers and parents. Parental support includes academic as well as social support and transparent communication. It also includes receiving care and compassion from parents and feeling safe and secure at home.
- Environmental and school safety: Various school level factors contribute immensely to a student’s sense of belonging. The ethos of the school, structure, and policies give a sense of fairness and make a student feel safe and secure in the school environment.
There could be many useful ways to bring about this sense of belonging – building meaningful connections between the various community members within the school (students, staff, teachers, peers, and parents).
This article highlights various strategies that can be used to increase the sense of belongingness in schools. The various behaviours that can be encouraged early in life to have a maximum impact.
How can schools contribute to enhancing students’ sense of belonging?
By virtue of the amount of time and energy spent at school by students, they become important spaces for helping students flourish. Most schools would like their community to be cohesive where everyone feels a sense of connection, but there is a lot more scope for conversations and intentional actions contributing to the same. Each school is unique with multiple stakeholders and therefore a multipronged strategy would be the most beneficial in fostering a sense of belonging. A review of research (Allen et al., 2018) highlights the need for changes at a systemic level where a whole-school approach is followed. This would mean incorporating a variety of measures to create inclusive communities where there is enough scope for everyone to learn and belong.
Let’s look at a few strategies that can be useful:
- Creating an inclusive environment where diversity is celebrated: Schools need to promote a culture of openness, curiosity, and acceptance towards everyone. A school with clear inclusive policies (this would mean clear policies on bullying, harassment, and discrimination), frequent events / activities / discussions which could highlight both diversity and similarity right from a young age would make students more attuned to the needs of others around them and in turn would make them feel more connected. It would be important for schools to have leaders who could give consistent messages about the value of belongingness and inclusivity. Incorporating the objective of enhancing a sense of belonging in school in the larger vision, would help design policies, curriculum, pedagogies, and teacher training programmes which would build behaviour enhancing the sense of belongingness in everyday life of the students and change school systems and processes for the better. Teachers and staff should be trained to understand the various socio-cultural, neuro-developmental, socio-economic, and linguistic barriers which may come in the way of a student’s sense of belonging. This would mean creating a safe and reassuring environment for students to feel supported.
- Importance of connection with at least one adult: It would be useful if schools could create opportunities and encourage each student to reach out and build positive relationships with at least one supportive adult member. This could be a teacher, a staff member, a house parent, or a senior with whom they feel safe. The main purpose of doing this would not only be to help students deal with their academic challenges, but also have someone they could go to, for their emotional needs. Teachers/supportive adults should be encouraged to know their pupil better, to understand their background, personality, interests, and challenges.
- Teaching social and emotional skills: Schools can contribute immensely to building students’ social and emotional skills. They can be central in helping children be more empathetic, kind, and considerate to their peers. These skills will be essential in promoting connection and a sense of belonging. One of the ways of building these skills could be by encouraging and promoting frequent social interaction between students, especially between students who may seem temperamentally different from each other. These can be done by scheduling interesting and fun activities, games, team-building sessions, or projects focussed on social change for both student and teachers. These activities can help in connecting, developing healthy relationships, and promoting a sense of belonging within the peers.
- Encouraging curiosity and learning: Students with a high sense of belonging also feel more motivated and value learning. Schools could be places where teachers and their teaching would foster curiosity and a clear sense of expectation. The classroom could become a place for not just passing of important information, but the content presented is made relevant and interesting and students could feel a sense of joy in what they are learning.
- Enhancing a sense of ownership: A sense of belonging also comes from a feeling of ownership in the community where we operate. Schools can be important places where students are given a voice, where they are included in at least some of the decision-making processes and setting up of norms. Where students have a say in how they want their school to be, and how they can contribute meaningfully to make it a better place for everyone. This could be in the form of taking onus for small events, activities, cleaning, ideating about projects where the whole school community can come together.
- Prevention and promotion of mental health: A whole school approach towards mental health would mean that the focus is not just on intervention when the school encounters challenging situations, but enough effort and energy is also given to promotive and preventive activities to address the mental health needs of the whole community. These would mean, the whole community (not just teachers, but also staff members and peers) to build their skills to spot signs of distress early (knowing when and how to intervene/refer), teaching important skills to students at-risk (for e.g., skills for anger management, emotional regulation, dealing with disappointments, stress management, increasing distress tolerance, etc.). It would be important for the school to feel well-equipped to spot subtle signs for help and reach out before things start breaking down.
- Including parents: Parents contribute in important ways by sharing their values and beliefs about educational experiences with their children. They can become important partners in making the students feel more included and value their learning in school. Regular proactive interactions and activities with parents would foster their sense of belonging with the school community and in turn would make them encourage their children to connect better. Schools should make sure that in their communication with parents, they are able to effectively reach out to most of the parents consistently, that the communication does not act as a barrier or become challenging for some parents. The school can invite the parents to contribute in meaningful ways by being part of certain school activities. Schools should also create forums where parents’ worries and concerns are aptly addressed.
School belonging is an essential aspect of a student’s psychological functioning. The various research and discussions around school belonging indicate the need for school management and policy makers to advocate for promotive and preventive measures focussing on whole-school approaches to foster student academic and overall well-being. Knowing the various factors contributing to school belonging will help identify and make the relevant changes in various important school systems and processes. The highlight is on building positive teacher-student relationship and enhancing personal skills like sense of self-efficacy and emotional regulation, it also underscores the importance of involving parents and the wider community in implementing whole-school interventions. It’s the responsibility of all the stakeholders, at home, school, and the larger community to foster a sense of belonging and well-being. The socio-ecological framework is useful in looking at the larger picture rather than focusing on individual level interventions. The school would have lot more control in bringing about certain systemic changes, which would help in sustaining a sense of school belongingness and well-being in the long run.
- Allen, K.A., Jamshidi, N., Berger, E., Reupert, A., Wurf, G., & May, F. (2022). Impact of school-based interventions for building school belonging in adolescence: A systematic review. Educational Psychology Review, 34(1), 229-257.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497.
- Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.
- Goodenow, C., & Grady, K. E. (1993). The relationship of school belonging and friends’ values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students. Journal of Experimental Education, 62(1), 60-71. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.1993.9943831.
- Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1-34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9389-8.
- Kelly-Ann Allen, Margaret L. Kern, Christopher S. Rozek, Dennis M. McInerney & George M. Slavich (2021) Belonging: a review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research, Australian Journal of Psychology, 73:1, 87-102, DOI: 10.1080/00049530.2021.1883409.
The author is practicing as a visiting consultant clinical psychologist at Narayana Clinic, Bengaluru. She was earlier teaching psychology at Azim Premji University. She is a licensed clinical psychologist working in this field for almost a decade and is the co-founder of a mental health collective called GoodEnough. She can be reached at email@example.com.